- Associated Press - Monday, October 24, 2016

ELKHORN, Wis. (AP) - Michael Thomas has been working in industry for most of his life.

It started in high school, when worked as a 16-years-old machinist during the summer, The Janesville Gazette (https://bit.ly/2dOJY7W ) reported.

Later, while running shops, he said he could never find qualified people to fill open positions.

“We were always looking for machinists. We were always looking for welders,” Thomas said. “Sometimes we would take a chance on people that looked really good or showed a little promise, and we’d hire them with no experience and train them.”

For 20 years, Thomas has wanted to see that change. Now, he’s addressing the problem from the bottom up. Thomas is teaching welding and machining classes at Elkhorn Area High School.

Thomas already was hiring interns from the high school and working with the school’s technology education department. When the school expressed interest in developing welding and machining classes, he helped with the logistics for the class.

Thanks to referendum money, the school could buy the equipment, and Thomas could design the space, he said.

But Thomas said there’s a “severe” shortage of technical education teachers in the state.

Principal Chris Trottier acknowledged the shortage. That led the school to choose Thomas as the teacher.

“Mike was a very active partner. He knew our community. He knew where we were and where we wanted to go,” Trottier said. “Mike’s demeanor, his approach and his interaction with kids and adults just demonstrated the skills, knowledge and disposition that we knew was a really good fit for us.”

Trottier and Elkhorn Superintendent Jason Tadlock emphasized Elkhorn schools are not only aiming to get students into higher education, but they want students to have tools for other paths.

“This is the expansion and development of our technology and engineering classes and is a snapshot into an overall mission and vision from the district and community to ensure our kids are career ready,” Trottier said. “We are making sure we are feeding the employer pipeline with quality employees with credentials.”

The high school had not offered welding or metals programs for many years, Thomas said.

Students were going to Gateway Technical College in Elkhorn to learn welding, but students were less likely to enter those programs on their own, Thomas said. Now, high school students can “get their foot in the door,” he said.

Over the summer, Thomas said he worked with contractors to help prepare the spaces to hold all the equipment. The school had to wait before acquiring some supplies because it lacked a place to put them.

Beyond getting the class set up, Thomas said he was unsure if students would sign up for his classes.

“They (students today) are not real hands-on like I was when I was young,” Thomas said. “Seeing the reaction and their interest once they start getting on equipment and seeing what it will do is really positive . They want to know. They want to learn. They want to do, which is awesome.”

More than 60 students are signed up for welding, and about 45 students are registered for machining this school year, which is broken up into trimesters. Welding is the bonding of two metals together, Thomas said. Machining is the cutting of metals and turning them into other parts.

Thomas said his previous work involved education, but he was surprised at how much behind-the-scenes work goes into teaching, such as building a curriculum.

Trottier said now that the school has the curriculum, equipment and instructor in place, the program will be ready to expand in the future.

“Let’s start ensuring our kids are getting industry-based certifications,” Trottier said. “Let’s get them the skills so we can start placing them in youth apprenticeships or co-ops in their senior year.”

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Information from: The Janesville Gazette, https://www.gazetteextra.com


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